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<i>Opportunity</i> Rover Set to Explore Mars - 2004-01-31

Scientists studying data from the Mars rovers hint that the Opportunity lander might have spotted what it came to look for, a mineral associated with water. Researchers are not yet ready to say for sure.

Opportunity is expected to roll off its landing platform Saturday. Even before it does, scientists are analyzing data it has already sensed about the surrounding Martian terrain that might suggest liquid water once flowed there. The researchers are trying to determine if an instrument on Opportunity has identified hematite, an iron mineral usually associated with water.

Finding such evidence is the reason the U.S. space agency sent Opportunity and its twin rover Spirit to Mars because water suggests the planet might have been habitable enough for life at one time.

But mission scientist Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis says his team is not yet prepared to confirm they have found hematite.

"The information is new," he said. "These folks have been up, some of them continuously for 24 hours and they want to check and double check before they make an announcement. We're still in the process of downloading other data sets to corroborate the initial analysis."

The instrument that gathered the data can sense the brightness of infrared radiation emitted from a source many meters away to let scientists determine its mineral composition. If what they see is hematite, the finding would justify the decision to land at the Meridiani Planum landing site, which mission scientists say contains the richest hematite deposits in the solar system.

Meanwhile, ground controllers are preparing commands for Opportunity to roll onto Martian soil Saturday, two days ahead of schedule. Mission engineer Daniel Limonadi says it has a clear path down the lander's front ramp, unlike its twin Spirit, which had to rotate and roll down a secondary ramp because deflated airbags had blocked its original path.

"At this point, we have a very benign egress path, so it's good to egress today and get ready to do science earlier on the surface of Mars six wheels on the ground in Meridiani Planum," he said.

Opportunity landed in a shallow crater one meter deep and seven meters wide. Scientists will first use the rover to map a crater on another planet for the first time. Then it will move on to examine exposed bedrock within the crater, rock whose layers they say can explain Mars' geologic history.

On the other side of the red planet, the twin rover Spirit might be ready to resume its movements Sunday if it responds to a data cleansing operation by engineers. Spirit's memory overload interrupted its science gathering operations last week. Mission controllers hope that flushing old data will free its memory to resume normal activities.